DES MOINES - Iowa officials will inspect more livestock farms and strictly enforce penalties when manure leaks into rivers or streams under a federal agreement signed Wednesday stemming from a yearslong dispute about enforcing the U.S. Clean Water Act.
The agreement comes about a year after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency threatened to take over enforcement of the federal law in Iowa if state officials didn't do a better job. The dispute stemmed back years and centered on the Iowa Department of Natural Resources' refusal to regularly inspect the state's thousands of large cattle and hog farms.
"Iowa is one of the world's most productive centers for the meat that feeds this nation and the world, and it also happens to be in the middle of the two great river basins in North America," said Karl Brooks, the EPA regional administrator. "That's why it's really important that Iowa get a first-class water permit program that really matches its role in the center of the United States and this gets Iowa there."
A Water Quality Notice sign hangs near the beach at Big Creek State Park, Tuesday, in Polk City. Iowa natural resources officials have signed an agreement with the EPA to inspect more livestock farms and more strictly enforce clean water regulations.
The agreement requires on-site inspections of large livestock farms with more than 1,000 cows or 2,500 hogs. That would include about 3,200 farms in Iowa.
Some smaller farms with at least 300 cows or 750 hogs also may be inspected if they've had recent manure spills or are near streams or rivers. The plan also requires the DNR to evaluate all other medium-sized livestock operations - about 4,800 in Iowa - to be sure they're meeting regulations.
"This work plan agreement clarifies program implementation and is a reflection of Iowans working together on a commonsense solution that will encourage best practices and promote open communication between affected Iowans and the DNR," said DNR Director Chuck Gipp.
Livestock farming has changed dramatically over the past 30 years, from independent farmers raising cows and pigs in pastures or fenced-in lots to operations that now house animals in massive buildings.
Iowa - the nation's leading pork producer - typically has about 20 million hogs. A farm with 2,500 hogs fattened for slaughter generates about 1.2 million gallons of manure a year, most of which is spread onto farm fields as fertilizer.
But the fields can hold only so much before it begins leaching out. Heavy rain at certain times of the year tends to wash even more away into rivers and streams.
In addition, manure spills caused by faulty equipment or accidents can release thousands of gallons into rivers. Such incidents have increased in recent years, polluting local rivers and streams and killing large numbers of fish.
As proof that the state needs to work harder to prevent water pollution, environmental groups frequently point to 479 Iowa lakes, rivers and streams listed as impaired by the EPA. A wet spring this year caused some rivers in central Iowa to record the highest nitrate levels ever.